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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Black Wings Has My Angel

Regular readers of this blog know that I love me some noir. It's my favorite film genre, and good noir makes for a an excellent read. However, not everybody is Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. Elliott Chaze, in his 1953 novel, Black Wings Has My Angel, has the style but not the substance. The prose crackles, but the plot is a bit loose. I appreciated that I had no idea where the book was going, but was let down by the ending.

The narrator is Tim Sunblade, who has just finished work on an oil rig and has some money burning in his pocket. He heads into a small Louisiana town and gets himself a hooker, Virginia, but she's far too attractive to be working in a little Podunk. "At the time I had no more idea of falling in love with her than I had of making a meal of the big yellow cake of soap in the Victorian bathroom."

But fall in love they do, and head to Colorado. There are some bumps along the way, such as when she tries to steal his money or when she runs off with another guy. But they have in common the lust for money, and plan an armored car robbery together.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a short book, but might have worked better as a novella. The crime doesn't take place until halfway through the book, and after that the story meanders. I don't want to spoil the ending, but Virginia isn't the femme fatale the book title purports her to be. Also, the cover, though a great pulp novel illustration, has nothing to do with what's inside the book.

Chaze has read his Chandler though, and knows how to describe a dame: "She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian, still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding down along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body."

Sunblade is also a classic example of the antihero, a man who commits evil but is tormented by it: "I was going downtown to kill a man who hadn't done a damned thing to me, to kill an old guy whose only fault as far as I knew was throwing chewing gum wrappers in the street. I was going to kill him because I wanted money more than I wanted him to live and I was going to kill him filthily."

There are also interesting takes on subjects, such as Virginia's views on gentlemen: "'I want to make it plain as the nose on your face. I can stand anything in the book but gentlemen. Because I've spent a lot of time, too much time with them, and I know why gentlemen are what they are. They decide to be that way after they've tried all the real things and flopped at them. They've flopped at women. They've flopped at standing up their hind legs and acting like men. So they become gentlemen.'"

The novel does have some unfortunate signs of its time, such as referring to a black woman as a "Zulu" and its general misogyny.

I wanted to like this book more, but it's really just so-so. A film adaptation with Tom Hiddleston and Anna Paquin seems to have been permanently shelved.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Reunion

It was heaven for comedy geeks last night as the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunited for a live event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of RiffTrax, one of the offshoots. I saw the show on Fathom Events at my local cinema, and as usual, laughed myself silly.

As I wrote about in my review of Cinematic Titanic, the other spin-off of the show, MST3K ran on various networks from 1988-1999, but the cast has never stopped keeping the practice of making jokes about bad movies alive. When you think about it, it's kind of strange, what this small band of people do for a living--they are the only ones who do it. I mean, anyone who fancies themselves funny may have made a crack during a movie, but these guys and gals are actually pros at it, and have been doing it for almost thirty years.

RiffTrax is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, all looking grayer of hair and thicker of middle. They started things off with two short subjects--there seems to be no end of instructional shorts from the old days, probably shown to school kids and at work orientations. The first was "The Talking Car," in which a young boy, after almost buying the farm by running into the street, is visited by three talking cars in a dream to remind him of safety rules. They followed this with "Shake Hands With Danger," another safety film about how not to end up losing a hand or worse on construction sites.

They were followed by Bridget Jones Nelson and Mary Jo Pehl, the distaff side of the cast, with a take on how long they've come, baby, with a short called "A Word to the Wives," one of those 1950s films about how dream kitchens can make a woman's life so much easier. It starred a young Darrin McGavin. This short had my favorite riff of the night, when a woman says of her kitchen, while the camera focused on the stove, "It won an award," and Pehl said, "The Sylvia Plath Award."

The best short of the night was Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff riffing on "More Dates for Kay," an example of another popular short, the school film about personal hygiene. Made in 1952, these are always good for laughs because the teenagers look like they're in their 40s and it's the America of Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. The homely Kay is trying to get more dates, and the film shows how she goes about it. There are numerous sexual entendres, such as when the guys say that to get more dates "a pimp helps." The school itself is referred to as "Squeaky Fromme High School."

Next up was the creator of the show, Joel Hodgson, teamed with the host of the new MST3K, which was funded by KickStarter (a platform has not been identified yet), Jonah Ray. They riffed on a short about barbers and beauticians.

The entire cast came back on to riff on a short with the TV Superman cast selling Treasury bills. My favorite line from this one was when a hoodlum was described as having a "face like an old catcher's mitt and smelling like an even older catcher's mitt." Watching George Reeves prancing around in his cape, the riff was "This is how people came out in the '50s."

The encore was a short called "Grass," which had children making crafts out of various grasses. Joel had the best line here, calling the kids "Blair Witch Project Babies." Watching the kids belabor making tacky jewelry out of weeds prompted Frank to say, "Someone should introduce these kids to video games."

I've forgotten many other good lines, and of course many of them aren't funny out of context. The laughs started early, though, as we waited for the film. They had specially made slides showing movie trivia, such as Famous Quotes: "What's in the hunny pot?"-- Piglet, from David Fincher's "Winnie the Po7oh," or "We are all characters in a Garry Marshall ensemble comedy on a commercial holiday."

I'm very much looking forward to the new incarnation of the show, and will be going to see RiffTrax take on Mothra on August 18th.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Whites

Richard Price is known for his hard-hitting police procedurals and tales of the demimonde, so I'm not sure why he wrote The Whites under the name of Harry Brandt, especially since his name is also on the book. He shouldn't be ashamed of the book, as it's a crackling good meditation on guilt and justice.

The story is told from the point of view of Billy Graves, a detective on the New York City night watch, who handle crimes committed in the wee hours of the morning and managed until the right precinct comes in. He and his staff are called in to a murder in Penn Station, and he realizes that the deceased is a killer that the cops refer to as a "white," short for "white whale": "they all had all met their personal whites, those who had committed criminal obscenities on their watch and then walked away untouched by justice, leaving their obsessed ex-WG hunters heading into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their offices and basements at night."

The WG refers to the "Wild Geese," a group of loyal cops, of mixed race and gender, who are beholden to each other like family. But when some of the other cops' whites turn up dead and missing, it makes Billy start to wonder.

This is in addition to an unknown person giving grief to Billy's family, such as bothering his son at school, taking his dementia-addled father for a ride, or leaving garbage on the front stoop. We know who it is, as that man's chapters are alternated between Billy's, we just don't know why he's doing it.

So, if The Whites isn't a whodunit, it's a why'dtheydoit, and the ethics of the story makes for some serious thinking. Should Billy turn in who's been killing the scum that are walking the streets?

Price has always written with the picaresque language of the streets and the squad room. Here's a few examples: "The handcuffed drunk in the backseat had lost three thousand dollars betting on the NCAA Final Four and decided that it was the fault of his wife's face, which he promptly set to rearranging." Or: "He was nothing more than an increasingly violent and out-of-control wreck whose hands shook all the time now from drinking, nothing more than a raging borderline wet-brain, so constantly tired these days that he could barely get in or out of bed."

By my count I've read four of Price's books: Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life, and now The Whites. I think this one, though written under a mysterious pen-name, is the strongest of the lot.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Chi-Raq

At long last I have come to the end of my Spike Lee retrospective, if only because Chi-Raq is his most recent film (there a few that are not available from Netflix). As usual with Lee, Chi-Raq is about as subtle as a hand grenade, but it's message is well-meaning and pointed--black youth are killing each other at much too high a rate.

Lee and co-write Kevin Willmott have adapted Aristophanes' play Lysistrata into present day Chicago, pejoratively dubbed Chi-Raq because of the seemingly endless slaughter. Two warring gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, have just added another innocent person to the dead by a stray bullet, and the women of the community, led by Teyonah Parris, decide to have a sex strike. As they put it, "No peace, no pussy."

I admired Lee's moxie in tackling this, and he pushes it further by sticking to the Greek form and writing it in verse. Samuel L. Jackson is the Chorus (sporting a fantastic wardrobe). The emotion he gleans from his cast, particularly Jennifer Hudson as the mother of the dead child (she, of course, has lost family to violence) is gut-wrenching.

Where the film struggles is the balance between tragedy and comedy. Aristophanes wrote comedies, but Lee has to be careful here, and pointedly says this film is not a comedy. But there are certainly broad comic moments, such as a meeting of the "Euphrates Club," a group of middle-class blacks, that manages to sneak in obvious Oedipus jokes. There are many dick and pussy jokes. Wesley Snipes, as the leader of one gang, wearing a jeweled eye-patch and called Cyclops, basically is giving a comic performance throughout. That would be fine, but Lee has no delicacy as a director, or at least hasn't shown any since the '90s, so it can seem callous.

But mostly I found this film moving and profound. John Cusack, as a white priest, gives one of his best performances, highlighted by a rousing elegy for the young girl. When he talks about politicians in the pocket of the NRA, it rings true, and to see this film right after Orlando hit home hard. The opening image of the film is a map of the United States using silhouettes of firearms. True dat.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

The fifth and last nominee for 2015's Best Foreign Language Oscar is Embrace of the Serpent, a Colombian film helmed by Ciro Guerra. It is an intriguing and strangely beautiful film, and I think I would voted for it.

The film tells two parallel stories in the Amazon: in 1909, an German ethnographer (Jan Bijvoet) and his guide seek out a shaman (Nilbio Torres) to find a healing plant. Some thirty years later, that same shaman, now played by Antonio Bolivar, guides an American botanist (Brionne Davis) to find that very same plant.

Each story takes on the template of the odyssey, as the parties move down river, encountering experiences. Both stop at a mission, which in 1909 is a Catholic orphanage run by an overzealous priest, while in 1940 it is in ruins, ruled over by a white man, a self-proclaimed messiah.

Throughout the film the tensions between the primitive Indians of the area versus the colonizing, rubber-hunting white man are palpable. The early group finds a worker for the rubber plantation, missing one arm and facially disfigured, frantically scooping liquid rubber into a bucket. When the guide, who bears scars from rubber bosses, wants to shoot him, the worker asks for death. The young shaman distrusts the whites, as he well should.

The older shaman, the last of his kind, describes himself as a shell of a man, telling the American he doesn't remember anything. But he still practices the old ways, and relies on ingesting hallucinogenics to make him dream. "Be a vagabond of dreams," he tells the American (both white men have trouble dreaming), which would have been a great alternative title, as well as sound advice, I think.

Some of the "being close to nature" stuff is old hat at this point--animals and plants are the gods that the Indians worship, especially the anaconda and the jaguar--but Guerra tells the story in very interesting ways. The film is in black and white, which one would think would be wrong, given that the jungle is so colorful, but it works, giving the film the appearance of something antique and lost.

I'm not sure about the ending--the film doesn't so much resolve itself but just stop, indicating the money might have run out. But on the whole Embrace of the Serpent is a fine picture, especially for those interested in the Indians of the Amazon.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bitch Planet

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro have taken the tropes of the women-in-prison exploitation film and used them to create a comic book that is sharply feminist, imagining a world that is even more patriarchial than our world. I have read a copy of the first collection of the series Bitch Planet, subtitled Extraordinary Machine, which collects the first five issues.

De Landro's art work is stunning, capturing the look of B-movie posters, especially the covers. But it's DeConnick's writing that makes the comic really move. We have yet another dystopian world, but this one is completely controlled by men. The leaders are called "Fathers," and women can be jailed for being "non-compliant." If so they are sent to a planet that is one entire prison. They are urged to be compliant by images of idealized women.

The first five issues are something of a set-up, and my only criticism is that it hardly got started before it was over. The main character, Kam, is approached to pick a team to play a sport called Megaton, which looks like a cross between Rollerball and Rover, Red Rover. Of course, this is just a gimmick set up by the powers that be as publicity, but the prisoners are taking it seriously, including one called Fanny Rolle, who is a giant of a woman. She gets her own issue exploring her back story.

At the end of each issue, there is a parody of the ads that were in comic books in the old days, like for X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys, although these are all geared toward patriarchy, such as the "Gyno-Coin," which is used for hypnosis. "When they play fuck/marry/kill, you'll never be kill again!" The order blank has what looks like a real address in Portland, Oregon, so I'm not sure how much of a gag it is.

As you might imagine, this is not a comic book for kids. There is lots nudity and violence. There will be a second volume coming out called President Bitch, so I will continue to read the story., if only to know what comes next. Remember, kids, though this is science fiction, and even though we are on the cusp of having the first women president of the United States, there's still a long way to go, as long as we have female members of Congress saying that women don't really want equal pay.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Hockey in the Desert

The big news here in Las Vegas this week is that we got a hockey team, Not a minor league team, but an honest to goodness NHL team, the first major league franchise from the four major North American sports leagues to arrive. I would describe the mood here as jubilant, though there are certainly some cautions.

The population of Las Vegas is just a tad over 600,000, which is a bit low for a major league team (I'm surprised to find that Columbus and Nashville have more people). It also is not exactly the first place you think of when it comes to hockey, especially since Canadian cities, such as Quebec and Hamilton, were passed over. But there have been teams where there is no natural ice for forty years, going back to the Los Angeles Kings. There are also teams in Phoenix, Tampa, and Miami, where the only ice is in a cocktail. But, of course, not all of those cities have been successful. Atlanta couldn't keep a team, and Phoenix had to be turned over to the league to run.

Las Vegas has had other teams, with varying degrees of success. Currently there is a minor-league baseball team, the 51s, which does fair business, while they lost a minor league hockey team, the Wranglers, due to problems with finding a place to play. There was also a Canadian (?) football team and an Arena League team that were busts.

So what should be expected from this NHL team? For it to succeed, it has to be a hit with locals, because though Las Vegas gets zillions of tourists, they don't come for sports. I think locals will be interested, if the pricing isn't too high. The people who live here would probably love something to do with the family--the one Wranglers game I went to was well-attended with families--but if the cost is too prohibitive, and only affordable by rich people, it will not be successful. Las Vegas is mainly Hispanic, and I'm not sure they're into hockey as a rule, but might go as a novelty and get hooked.

So far there are over 15,000 season ticket sales. I'm waiting to see if they offer a partial season ticket plan, because I'm certainly not wealthy enough or interested enough to buy a full plan. Hockey, in my opinion, is the best sport to watch in person, as it's constant motion and extremely exciting.

A big plus is that the arena, the T-Mobile Arena, has already been built by MGM, so there is no tax payer burden. The Oakland Raiders are currently toying with the city to get a stadium built, which would cost the taxpayers 750 million dollars. I am firmly against spending one cent on sports facilities. If they want to play here, let them build their own stadium. Look at the chicanery that's going on in Atlanta and Arlington, Texas over baseball stadiums. It's close to being criminal.

The name of the franchise is still to be determined. The owner has ties to Army, which is known as the Black Knights, so those in the know expect that will be the name. The NHL is reportedly skittish about having a name associated with gambling, otherwise the Aces might be the choice. I favor the Rat Pack, which has ties to Vegas and would also be great for merchandise, and could inspire a mascot that would be a giant rat wearing a fedora.

Drop the puck!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Spike Lee, with his 2014 film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, tries something ambitious: an erotic supernatural thriller, but with art-house pretentions. He succeeds about half the time. Even though it's not a complete success it has some interest.

Based on a 1973 film called Ganji and Hess, Lee fashions a vampire tale incorporating the African American experience, transubstantiation, and old-fashioned horror. An expert in African culture, Stephen Tyrone Williams, receives a ceremonial sword from the Ashanti empire. He describes how they were doing blood transfusions way before the time of ancient Egypt, and how they came to be addicted to blood.

Williams' assistant, an unhinged man, stabs him with the sword and then commits suicide. Williams comes back to life, and then licks up his killers' blood as if he were a cat at a saucer of milk.

The rules, as it were, of Williams' affliction are unclear. It seems he can eat and drink, unlike vampires, and walk in the sun, etc. But he has a thirst for human blood that goes beyond using bags of it. He murders a prostitute, and then goes to New York and picks up a young mother and kills her. But they come back to life, presumably hungry for blood themselves.

His assistant's ex-wife (Zaraah Abrahams) comes looking for her ex and falls in lust/love with Williams, not knowing her former spouse is in the freezer. Even after she learns this she is indoctrinated into the blood cult, and, in a scene that will please those who like girl-girl sex scenes, gets her first kill with Williams' old girlfriend, who shows off everything.

As often with Lee, the interesting elements of the story are not satisfactorily tied together and the point seems to be lost. We see scenes of a small Baptist church in Brooklyn, and the point about drinking Jesus' blood and eating his flesh is well noted, but beyond that I'm not sure what message Lee has. The film has long stretches of inaction (Lee does not like making anything under two hours, it seems).

Before I started my Spike Lee film festival I had never heard of this film. It did have a theatrical release, but was also VOD. The funding came from Kickstarter. I will say this about Lee--he has never sacrificed his principles. No superhero films for him.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Something More Than Free

The nextr Grammy-winning album I'm taking a listen to is Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free, which won the Grammy for Best Americana Album. Now, you may wonder what "Americana" is, as I did. It was separated from the Contemporary Folk category a few years ago, with Folk encompassing acoustic music and Americana electric. But my question, upon listening to this album, is what separates American from Country (a category unto itself), because this record sure sounds Country to me.

Isbell used to be a member of Drive-By Truckers, a band I sort of heard of, but couldn't tell you anything about. I do know that Isbell writes nice, pretty songs that don't sound Americana to me--that term suggests gritty blues, bluegrass, or other roots music. I'm not putting this record down--it's a nice listen, but the production is polished and thoroughly contemporary.

I gave the album several listens and where Isbell's strength lies is as a lyricist. Sometimes you don't hear the lyric before the third or fourth time you've heard the song. His lyrics also match the song very well. For instance, in "24 Frames," we hear:

"You thought God was an architect,
But now you know
He's something like a pipe bomb
Ready to blow
And everything you've built that's all for show
Goes up in flames
In 24 frames"

Following that last line, there is a lovely fiddle line that gives the song an extra oomph that makes it memorable. This also works in "How to Forget," which after the refrain contains a three-note riff that sounds very much like the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" notes of the Beatles' "She Loves You."

The best song on the record is "Speed Trap Town," a tour de force of poetic imagery. I'd like to quote the whole thing, but I'll settle for this:

"Doctors said Daddy wouldn't make it a year,
But the holidays are over and he's still hear.
How long can they keep you in the ICU?
Veins in the skin like a faded tattoo.
Was a tough state trooper 'til a decade back
When that girl that wasn't Momma caused his heart attack.
He didn't care about us when he was walking around
Just pulling people over in a speed trap town."

Something More Than Free is a nice record with some great lyrics. Musically it doesn't take much chances and sounds like typical Nashville to me. But that may be a selling point to others. I just don't think it's "Americana."



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Cleveland, City of Champions

I don't follow the NBA very closely any more--not since the Bad Boys days of the Detroit Pistons--but I did tune in Sunday night to see the last quarter and a half of game seven of this year's championship between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It was the first time watching any of the playoffs for me, but I knew the situation--Golden State had won a record number of games this year, and were the defending champions. They had a 3-1 lead on the Cavs, but had lost it, and it all came down to this game.

The Cavaliers were led by LeBron James, who had come back to Cleveland after winning two championships in Miami, promising the city a title. They were the underdogs, even though it's hard to imagine LeBron as any kind of underdog.

I had no horse in this race. I have nothing for or against LeBron, but Cleveland was the most hapless of any city in American sports, not having any kind of championship since the 1964 Browns. Golden State was kind of a machine, and I thought it would be fitting for them to cap off the best regular season of all time with a title.

But it would be the Cavs night. I can't go to deeply into it to tell you why, as I am not a basketball savant. I do know that Steph Curry had an off night--whether or not it was the Cavs defense or his own inability to hit the big jump shot I don't know--but it is clear that LeBron was a beast. He had a triple-double, after scoring 41 in consecutive games, and his iconic moment on this night would not be a shot but a block, on Andre Iguadala's lay-up, which was analyzed as showing that Lebron reached the height of eleven-feet, five inches in the air.

So Cleveland is now title-town U.S.A. I'm glad the city can enjoy something, for it has been a joke for a long time. The Indians have not won a World Series since 1948, and took a lead into the ninth inning of the 1997 Series only to blow it. The Browns left town to be the Baltimore Ravens, who have won two Super Bowls, but the team that replaced them has been historically bad. The only hockey team to have been in Cleveland was the Barons, who existed for two years before being merged with the Minnesota North Stars. They are the last such franchise in the big four sports leagues to simply cease existing.

Beyond that, Cleveland has long had the tag of being a place for no one wants to live. The Cuyahoga River, which caught fire in 1969, has long haunted the city. A search for "Cleveland jokes" calls up numerous web sites, including Amy Schumer's recent appearance there--"Ladies, don't go to L.A. Stay here, where you're hot." In poking around the Internet looking for a reason for Cleveland's bad reputation, there doesn't seem to be any one instance. It's just a typical Midwestern city that doesn't have a lot of excitement related to it. At my grandmother's funeral, my mother read their wedding announcement in the paper. We all laughed when it was revealed they honeymooned in Cleveland.

Now Cleveland has the rock and roll Hall of Fame and LeBron James, so I think, that things are looking up for them. The question today has been who is the new city of losers? Technically, San Diego hasn't had a championship since 1963, and that was the AFL. Shortly they will have only one professional team, the Padres, who don't look capable to winning anything for a long time, as the Chargers are going back to L.A. But San Diego is at least a place people want to go. Buffalo, on the other hand, has never won anything of any kind. The Bills famously lost four Super Bowls in a row, including one a missed kick, while the NHL's Sabres have never hoisted the Stanley Cup. And no one wants to live in Buffalo.

Congratulations, Cleveland. It feels good. Let it last a good long while.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Miracle at St. Anna

I continue my seemingly never-ending look at the films of Spike Lee with one of his worst, Miracle at St. Anna, from 2008. Perhaps there is a good film in there somewhere--it's based on a book by a good writer, James McBride, but Lee being Lee, it's way too long and the director is constantly seeking our approval.

The story is about black soldiers in World War II, a topic that is vastly under-represented. The irony of men fighting for a country that treats them like less than human is one that needs to be explored. In Tuscany in 1944, a unit of black soldiers is undermined by their captain, and four men are trapped behind enemy lines. They hole up in a small town with a family, also tending for an orphaned and injured boy. One of them lugs around a statue's head for good luck.

This story is framed by one from Harlem in 1983. One of those soldiers, now a postal worker, recognizes someone in line buying stamps and shoots him dead. A reporter tries to get to the bottom of it. A flashback reveals all.

If the film weren't an ungodly two hours and forty minutes there might have been a decent film here. Lee tries to juggle to many storylines. We are well into the film when we are introduced to new characters, such as a ragtag band of partisans, and a pair of German officers. There is also some gratuitous nudity by Valentina Cervi as an Italian woman who has captured the eye of two of the soldiers (when you hear me complaining about nudity, there's something definitely wrong).

The centerpiece of the film is a massacre of Italian citizens by Nazis at Sant'Anna di Stazzema, which was a true event that I had never heard of. According to the film, Nazis kill an entire churchful of people when looking for an Italian partisan, but this is not precisely the correct history, or so say Italians. In any event, Lee shoots this unflinchingly, even including the bayoneting of a baby.

One can appreciate Lee's thinking here. He wanted to make a war film that highlighted the experience of the Buffalo soldiers but his self-indulgence got in the way, and he made a film that seems to be more about him than his subject.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Harder They Come

I've written a lot about T.C. Boyle on this site, as he's one of my favorite writers, but usually only his short stories really get me. I've read many of his novels, but they've not been as sharp as his shorter work. I guess Drop City is my favorite of his novels.

His latest is The Harder They Come, which is sort of an examination of American violence, told through two generations, plus a throwback to the days of mountain men.

The first section is a tour de force which could stand on its own as a novella. A group of American tourists, on an excursion from a cruise ship, are headed on a bus into the rain forest of Costa Rica. Boyle humorously and mordantly sketches the misery of one man, Sten Stensen, who has humored his wife by going on this trip and his hating every minute of it--the heat, the bouncing of the bus over rough roads, the rudeness of the driver. When they get off the bus they are accosted by thieves, and Sten manages to grab one of them and kill him. He is questioned by authorities, but is let go, congratulated even.

The rest of the book takes place in Northern California, where Sten's son, Adam, is deranged and a walking time bomb. Adam likes to call himself Colter, after the real-life mountain man who was part of Lewis and Clark's expedition and the first white man to see what is now Yellowstone Park.

Adam is picked up hitchhiking by Sara, the third major character of the book, a farrier who has odd ideas about the government. She is arrested after she resists getting a ticket and her dog snaps at an officer. Adam assists her in taking back her dog from the pound, and the two enter a relationship.

Boyle, though writing in the third person, takes a particular point of view from each of these three characters. The best parts are in the view of Sten, a 70-year-old former teacher and principal who doesn't know what to do about his son. He also gets involved with a group that is trying to rid the area of Mexican marijuana growers. Sara's anti-government insanity is also rendered deftly--she's beyond Tea Party. But I found Adam's portions difficult to read. Writing from the point of view of someone mentally disturbed isn't easy, and when writing from Adam's point of view I found myself itching to get back to other parts of the story. He wasn't a sympathetic character, and his predictable end was something I couldn't wait for.

Boyle also includes some of Colter's adventures, such as "Colter's Run," which I think I've seen in movies or read about in other versions (I believe Larry McMurtry borrowed it in Lonesome Dove). Blackfeet Indians have captured Colter and stripped him naked, given him a head start, and told him to run. Colter manages to escape them. Boyle could do well to write a Western.

But of course Boyle's best talent is describing the foibles of modern society. He soars when writing passages like this: "The place was crowded, a fact that normally would have driven him up a wall. He'd spent his whole life being impatient, expecting everybody to clear out of his way, the slow drivers to pull over and the crowds, wherever they were--the movies, the ballpark, the airport--to gather some other time, some other day and hour when he wasn't there to enjoy the planet with them." Gee, not only is that good writing but it describes me to a T.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

It was thirty years this month that Ferris Bueller's Day Off was released, and to honor the occasion I watched it again last night. I'm glad to learn that it is fresh and funny as it was in 1986.

Of the eight films John Hughes directed, I think it's the best (just a shade better than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), and while it purports to be about teenagers, I think it's message is universal--Ferris (Matthew Broderick) can't deal with school on such a beautiful day--but that translates to adulthood, too. How many of us have awakened, unable to face a work day when the sun is shining?

The entire film is structured something like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Ferris is pretty much perfect. His parents favor him and have no doubts about his being sick (in one of his frequent monologues to the audience, he tells us clammy hands is the clincher). He has a perfect girlfriend (Mia Sara) and is something of an electronics genius, able to hack into the school's attendance records. He is like Bugs Bunny.

But like Bugs Bunny, he has nemeses. There are two here--his sister (Jennifer Grey), who fumes with resentment that she can't get away with what he can, and Mr. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the hapless Dean who is determined to catch Broderick skipping school. Jones is the Elmer Fudd, or Yosemite Sam, of the picture, constantly outwitted by Bugs and heaped with indignity. What a great ending, when he is tattered and wounded, riding the school bus, offered a gummy bear by his seatmate?

The character that makes Ferris Bueller's Day Off interesting is when it veers away from the cartoon aspects. That is Cameron, played by Alan Ruck, a neurotic who may be suicidal. Broderick's best friend, he is a whipped dog, afraid of his father, who loves a car more than him, and goes along skittishly with every one of Broderick's schemes. Some consider him the lead of the film, that the true climax is when that car goes crashing down a hillside, and Ruck will have to confront his father. But we never see him after that, and can only wonder about him.

Some people go further than than, and suppose that Ferris is just a figment of Cameron's imagination. The "Fight Club" theory has that Cameron imagines the whole thing, creating an alter ego that is perfect. Sara is his dream girl, who he has never even talked to. He lives vicariously through Ferris' adventures, and through this is able to come to the decision to deal with his father.

Of course, the whole thing breaks down when you consider there are scenes in the movie that Cameron can not know about it, such as Grey's subplot or Jones' misadventures at the Bueller house. But one can't help but feeling affected by the Ruck characterization. His breakdown in the garage, with Broderick and Sara looking on, horrified, seems too real in an otherwise light-hearted romp.

Now that I'm a teacher I appreciate this movie a little more. The Ben Stein stuff, which is perhaps the most quoted of anyone in the movie--"Bueller, Bueller?" and "Anyone?" strikes home. I, too, have gone on ad nauseum about something I consider interesting only to have blank stares come back at me (it is too bad that Ben Stein is so horrible now). The editing and use of the frame is also brilliant. When Bueller's mother (Cindy Pickett) is in the police station, and in the background Grey is making out with Charlie Sheen, is classic comedy, as is the double-take that Richard Edson, as the garage attendant, makes when Broderick asks him if he speaks English, and Jonathan Schmock as the officious maitre 'd.

One has to consider this as a fantasy, though, as otherwise it doesn't make sense. The timing is all off. If we consider the film starts at seven o'clock, when many high school kids wake up, it goes fine. They have a 12 o'clock lunch at the French restaurant (where Broderick impersonates Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago) and then are at a Cub's game, which probably started at one. Then it all goes to hell. If we suppose they stayed for the whole game, which would have been at least three hours, they would have been hard pressed to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and participate in a parade. That means (horrors) they must have left the game early.

Also, school ends for most students between two and three. Why Rooney would still be stalking him hours after school had ended makes no sense (I guess you can chalk it up to Rooney being insane), and why there is still a school bus riding around at six o'clock is problematic. Another problem is that there would be no way the police would take lightly a girl calling in about an intruder, and pulling her in for making a prank call, especially when a man's wallet was prominently lying on the kitchen floor.

So think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off as a live-action cartoon, defying the laws of time and space, and enjoy the spirit of life it gives off, when indeed,"Life moves pretty fast; if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it!"

Friday, June 17, 2016

Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman is so distinct a filmmaker that entering the world of one of his movies is like going down the proverbial rabbit hole. In Anomalisa, that effect is squared, because it is a stop-motion animated film with puppets. But it is not kid stuff.

As is his wont, Kaufman has crafted a tale about a sad sack (think of Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Philip Seymore Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York), a customer service expert voiced by David Thewlis. He is in Cincinnati for the night, to give a speech the next day. He is distanced from all of the people around him, in fact they all look the same to him and have the same voice (literally, all voices are done by Tom Noonan).

He calls up an old girlfriend, and they have a disastrous meeting. He is in the shower when he hears a voice that is not the same as everyone else's. He pounds on hotel doors until he finds it--it's Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa. She's a rather dowdy woman but Thewlis is so enraptured by her voice that he sweeps her off her feet. They have an intimate night together and he's ready to leave his wife when Leigh starts to blend in with everyone else.

I was interested to read that Kaufman got an inspiration for the film from a disorder called the Fregoli delusion, in which people think that all other people are the same person (in an in-joke, the name of the hotel where Thewlis stays is called the Fregoli). In a rather obvious move, Kaufman makes a man who can't tell people apart an expert on customer service, in which the ideal is to treat each person as an individual.

The stop-motion technique, directed by Duke Johnson, is weirdly off-putting. Each puppet has a line through their temple that makes them all look they are wearing glasses. It is also very strange to watch two puppets have sex (including cunnilingus).

Anomalisa is intriguing, but also sharply depressing. The main character clearly has a pyschological problem--when he finally gives his speech he has a breakdown, and it's one of those "watch through your fingers" moments. By the end I'd kind of abandoned any hope of rooting for him--does a man really fall in love with a woman in one night and then criticize her at breafast for talking with her mouth full? Leigh's character is also a sad sack--she has a facial scar she hides with her hair and hadn't had a love affair in eight years. That these characters are denied any happiness at the end seems too cruel.

I'm glad I saw Anomalisa, but I wouldn't want to watch it again.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stranger to Stranger

I've written before about how musicians from the golden age or rock often outstay their welcome, and end up playing Las Vegas and other places for aging boomers. Some, though, are still at the top of their game. Paul Simon has just released his thirteenth solo album, Stranger to Stranger, and he shows no sign of slowing down.

Of course, Simon was never a rock star, per se. Though he has written some rock tunes, I would classify him more as being a part of the American songbook, and could be dropped in any era and be a success. I've written about that at length here. As for this new album, I think it's the strongest he's done since Graceland, his revelatory album from 1985.

As he has over the thirty plus years since Graceland, Simon again uses musical styles from all over the world. His liner notes are goldmines of information about where the songs came from and who participated. The very first note on the very first track, "The Werewolf," is a note from an Indian instrument called the gopichand. It sound like a wolf howling, which leads into a terrific, witty song about how the werewolf--death? is coming for us all:

"You better stock up on water
Canned-goods off the shelves
And loot some for the old folks
Can't loot for themselves
The doorbell's ringing
Could be the elves
But it's probably the werewolf
It's quarter to twelve"

Simon was inspired by Harry Partch's microtonal instrumentals. Partch used a scale of 43 notes, not twelve, and created some exotic instruments to play them. There is also the flavor of Flamenco, as Simon used some musicians of that style in "The Werewolf," "The Riverbank," "Stranger to Stranger," and "Wristband," which is my second favorite song on the album. Starting with an amusing anecdote about locking himself out of a theater and not being allowed back in by the guard, who tells him "You gotta have a wristband, my man, or you don't get through the door," Simon takes that and uses it as a metaphor for inequality:

"The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never got a wristband
Kids that can't afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you'll never get a wristband"

Another song I like is "Street Angel," which has a very strange vocal sound underneath the main instrumentation. Simon reveals it's a gospel track slowed down and played backwards. Who thinks of these things? It sounds ghostly, yet friendly. Another is "In a Parade," about one of those street angels in an E.R.:

"Diagnosis: Schizophrenic
Prognosis: Guarded
Medication: Seroquel
Occupation: Street Angel"

Simon ends the album with two lovely songs, "Cool Papa Bell," name-checking the great Negro League baseball player, and "Insomniac's Lullaby," the song contains the first guitar lick that started the album and uses those Partch instruments, now housed at Montclair State University: zoomoozophone, cloud-chamber bowls, bowed marimba, harmonic canon, and chromelodeon.

Simon, at 74, is still innovating. I'm sure in concert he still plays the old stuff, but he isn't resting on his laurels. Long may he create.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Hollywood Sign

When we think of icons that represent cities, we think of great works of art or architecture, like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Roman Colosseum. How odd is it then that the icon that represents the glamorous world of movie-making is a plain, white sign that is the name of the place itself. "The Hollywood sign is a strange sort of icon. It isn't an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever 'Hollywood' might be--with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning. The Hollywood sign might therefore seem to be the perfect symbol of modern celebrity, the sign that celebrates itself, spelling out 'Hollywood' for all the world to see.

So writes Leo Braudy in his thoughtful and insightful The Hollywood Sign. It's a slim book, as the history of the sign isn't that long. Mostly it's an essay on how Hollywood came to be a metonym. a name that represented the movie industry worldwide. Indeed, whenever I hear about people in other countries talking about American movies, they usually refer to them as coming from "Hollywood," even if movies are not really made there anymore.

In the beginning, the movie industry was located in the Northeast, where Thomas Edison had his studio in New Jersey (movies were also made in Astoria, Queens, and in Chicago). But soon, after Edison lost the stranglehold he had on the business, men who made movies looked elsewhere, where it was warm and several different kinds of scenery were close by. The town of Hollywood, not much but fruit orchards then, was, at that time, a haven for prohibitionists, who looked down on movie people.

In 1910 the village of Hollywood was annexed by Los Angeles. Movies were made in many different towns around the area, including Glendale and Edendale (Eden--now that is a name for movies!). Eventually Charlie Chaplin built a studio there, the first.

Broudy teases us by making us wait for the first time that "Hollywood" means the movie business itself: "The early 1920s therefore mark the moments when 'Hollywood,' with the newfound respectability as well as the notoriety of the movies as an art and a business, begins to be the local habitation and name for all its aspects, not matter where they might be in reality."

Where does the sign fit in all of this? It was originally an advertisement for a housing subdivision called Hollywoodland, and had the extra four letters. It was meant to be temporary (just like the Eiffel Tower) and little did anyone think it would mean anything. Perhaps one of the first to see it as a metaphor was an actress named Peg Entwhistle, who did a swan dive off the "H," committing suicide in 1932. "Whatever her motivations, she may have been the first to perceive the sign symbolically and make it into a dramatically explicit part of her biography."

The sign fell into disrepair and over the years had to be refurbished. It sits on what is now called Mount Lee, where Mack Sennett once owned land and planned to build a palatial home. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce now maintains it, and in the 1970s a major overhaul was done, with the letters reinforced and anchored to concrete posts firmly set in the ground. A strange combination of benefactors, led by Alice Cooper and Hugh Hefner, were the angels that funded the restoration.

The sign is indelibly linked with the aura of Hollywood, despite its tawdry origins. If a film wants to establish the setting as Los Angeles, it is inevitably shown (the most recent example is The Nice Guys, which opens from behind the sign, in its tattered '70s appearance). I know that on visits to Los Angeles I feel a little frisson of excitement when I see it, as it lets me know I'm really there, and it imparts some kind of magic. My friend Bob and I, on two trips to Hollywood, tried to get as close as we could to the sign (unlike most icons, you are not allowed access to it), driving up steep, winding streets in Beachwood Canyon, much to the dismay of locals.

This is a great book for movie buffs. There are occasional errors--Sessue Hayakawa is referred to as S.I. Hayakawa, who was an academic and politician--but it is comprehensive on the history of the place as well as its state of mind.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Purple Rain

It took Prince's death to get me to see Purple Rain, his film debut. I had seen none of his films before now, and after this I'm not eager to see any more. Prince was a great musician, but he was no actor.

Directed poorly by Albert Magnoli, the first thing that struck me about the film was how cemented into the '80s it is. Most of it is cut like an early MTV video, which I'm sure was intentional. The hairstyles are ludicrously dated, but that's just the way it goes with rock and roll, where styles change. I should add though that Prince was never out of style, and even today the image he presents--a man in a puffy shirt and a purple suit on a motorcycle--is still dashing.

Prince plays the Kid, who leads a band called The Revolution (played by the Revolution members themselves). He works as a house band in a popular club, but marches to his own drummer. His bandmates, particular Wendy and Lisa (playing themselves) are disgruntled that he won't listen to their songs, and a rival musician (Morris Day) tries to undermine him.

Enter Apollonia (played by herself), who falls for Prince, even though he cruelly leads her to jump into a dirty lake with no clothes on (the film has a major theme of abuse of women, but tends to be ambiguous about it). Day signs her up for an all-girl band, though. Meanwhile Prince is dealing with domestic abuse at home, as his father (Clarence Williams III) likes to slap around his mother.

I'm sorry to say that the only good parts of Purple Rain are the musical parts, whether the concert stuff or the songs between action. Prince tears it up in the opening with "Let's Get Crazy," and the climax is when he plays the title song, which makes everybody, even his enemies, pay close attention. But the stuff in between is pretty bad. The acting is on the level of amateur theatrics, with the primary perpetrator being Apollonia. Prince can hold the screen, but his delivery is mostly a monotone, except when he shouts.

Although he overacts, Day is pretty funny, especially in an Abbott-and-Costello routine with his assistant, Jerome.

Countless music stars crossed over and tried to be movie stars, and only a few have succeeded. My advice is to listen to the album instead.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Shooting in Orlando

I woke up early on Sunday--well, early for a Sunday, 8:30--to walk the dog. I saw an alert on my phone that there was another mass shooting, at that time with 23 dead. I didn't want to know more. I didn't turn on the TV. I hoped it wasn't a Muslim and went back to bed, burying my head in the sand.

I awoke to find that it was 50 dead, 53 wounded, and that the crime scene was a gay nightclub. The shooter was a Muslim, Omar Mateen. He made a call to 911 to express solidarity with ISIS, although he was not coordinating an attack with them. That does not matter to most.  The die was cast. America would know see three special breeds of asshole: the Islamophobe, the homophobe, and the gun nut. It was a perfect storm of idiocy.

Mass shooting are now something we see regularly, like rain showers. Since the Newtown shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, there have been 998 mass shootings in the U.S.! 998! And each time a nation collectively wrings its hands and people raise their voices but nothing gets done, because a powerful lobby called the N.R.A. has too many politicians in its pocket. No law can get passed. As President Obama pointed out just a few days before this tragedy, the CDC isn't even allowed to do a study on gun violence.

The Islamophobes spoke out, led by Donald Trump, who instead of expressing any sympathy made a tweet in which he took congratulations on being "right" about terrorism. The thing is, he's not right. Of those 998 shootings, only two have been by Muslims. Mateen was born in the United States. Unless he's talking about rounding up all Muslims (maybe he is) there's not a lot we can do about that.

Oh, but wait! Mateen had been investigated by the FBI before. He was an abusive husband and spoke openly about killing people to co-workers. But he had no trouble buying an AR-15 rifle. A Facebook friend of mine, my old college roommate, who is an avowed Islamophobe, asked why people are blind to the problem. Yes, people are blind to the problem--the problem is guns. Mateen should have never been able to buy a gun that's sole purpose is too kill as many people in as short a time as possible. No one should.

But we have the gun nuts out there who have their heads up their collective asses so far they must see brown. There are the nitpickers, who say the AR-15 isn't an automatic weapon, yada yada yada. I don't care what its specifications are, a man under investigation by the FBI shouldn't have one. We also hear rationalizations that are bloodless--oh well, bad guys are going to get guns anyway. By that reasoning, we might as well do away with speed limits, or all laws entirely. After another mass shooting some time back sniper Chris Kyle's widow said something so blitheringly stupid to Obama that it's a testament to his kindness that he didn't bite her head off: "You can't outlaw murder." Well of course you can, and every nation has. Murder is a crime.

The third type of asshole, the homophobe, has thankfully mostly been kept to the fringes. The predictable Westboro Baptist Church chimed in that god sent the shooter, while Steven Anderson, a repellent pastor from Arizona, said that it's no big deal, that's just 50 less pedophiles. What is more heartwarming is that most decent people have put out their hearts and minds to the gay community. I was at an ATM today and Wells Fargo bank of all things had a rainbow-colored flag on their home screen. The people and the law have spoken about gay rights, and anybody who can't agree should get out of the way.

Meanwhile I'm just angry. Angry at a loser like Mateen (today it is revealed that he was a frequent visitor to the club and had an account on a gay dating site, so it could have been a case of a self-loathing gay man) but even more so at a congress that is unwilling to do anything about this epidemic of destruction and loss. We must ban the AR-15 from private use, and the sooner the better.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Maggie's Plan

Maggie's Plan is a delightfully breezy romantic comedy from director and screenwriter Rebecca Miller. It had a lot of truths in it, I thought, about men and women, and has another terrrific performance by Greta Gerwig. But it also owes a lot to Woody Allen.

Vilified as he may be right now, Maggie's Plan has Allen's fingerprints all over it. Not every romantic comedy can be traced to Allen, but when the three leads are all academics and a man uses his novel as a way to impress a woman (and a younger woman, at that) this is all Allen. The screenplay is based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, but it's also based on Husbands and Wives and any number of other Allen films.

That being said, Maggie's Plan is better than many of Allen's films of this century. Gerwig is Maggie, who at the film's outset has decided to become a single mother, using the sperm of an old college friend, a weird guy who has begun an artisan pickle business.

At the same time, though, she falls in love with Ethan Hawke, who is a professor of "ficto-critical anthropology," which I'm not sure is a real thing or not. He's married to another anthropologist, Julianne Moore, who is Danish and has an accent like Elmer Fudd's. What he really wants to do is write a novel, and when Gerwig indicates enthusiasm for it, they have an affair and marry, with a little girl as a result.

After a couple of years, though, Gerwig begins to tire of Hawke, who is still working on his book. He's extremely needy and self-absorbed, and thinks she is so capable that she doesn't need him (this is like Hannah of Hannah and Her Sisters). She gets an idea--give him back to Moore, who is hostile to Gerwig's attempts at manipulation but eventually accedes.

The tone is always light here, and I had a smile most of the time. I was even caught in a trap. Gerwig finds a parking spot right in front of where she wants to be, which is a pet peeve of mine about films set in New York, because this never happens. She gets a parking ticket--and I wanted to cheer. Also, I found Hawke's performance as a man-child, a puppyish intellectual, to be on target. He thinks he needs freedom, but what he really wants is to be the support for Moore, who is even more childish than he is.

The film has peppy dialogue, the kind that college graduates enjoy, and though not exactly a visual film does have some interesting shots, such as a rainy night in Chinatown and the snowy woods of Quebec. There are also some sly references, such as bookending mentions of A Midsummer-Night's Dream and two versions of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark."

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Empire of Cotton

What was the world's largest manufacturing industry? Oil? Tea? Steel? No, it's cotton. In his comprehensive book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, Sven Beckert presents the story of cotton, and how it made many men rich and was the dominant industry of the world as early as a thousand years ago.

"As early as a thousand years ago, the production of cotton textiles in Asia, Africa and the Americas was the world's largest manufacturing industry; sophisticated trade networks, mostly local but a few regional, connected growers, spinners, weavers, and consumers."

Beckert tackles just how complex the cotton trade was. One garment might be made from work in three different continents: "The slave-grown Mississippi cotton manufactured into yarn in Lancashire might be wove into a shirt somewhere in the Indian countryside."

Cotton was something everybody needed, at least eventually. Europe was the last to use it, as it didn't grow there, but soon that continent, primarily England, became powerful brokers of cotton. Liverpool became one of the richest cities in the world due to the importing of cotton to its harbor. And the southern United States based their whole economy on it, due to the existence of slavery.

While many grew rich from cotton, it was on the backs of people who were paid little or nothing. To grow cotton required great labor, which of course the southern states had in abundance. "Slavery...was as essential to the new empire of cotton as proper climate and good soil." Australia, for example, never became a cotton-growing power because it did not have the necessary labor force.

Of course Beckert writes about the American Civil War, which was a key moment in the history of cotton. England had been receiving over sixty percent of its cotton from the U.S., and when Union ships blockaded Confederate exports, other cotton growing nations stepped in. In Egypt, the Civil War is one of the most momentous events in Egyptian history.

Empire of Cotton is not always easy reading. I don't have much of a handle on economics, and Beckert writes a lot about war capitalism, but I'm not quite sure what that is. There are a lot of numbers, which sometimes washed right over me. He does get very un-academic when writing about the plight of child workers exploited by their employers.

Overall I found it an interesting if at times difficult read. It had never occurred to me that cotton was that important to the world's economy. Today cotton is mostly grown in China. It seems that everything comes from there now.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A War

The fourth nominee from last year's Best Foreign Language Film that I've chalked up is A War, from Denmark, directed by Tobias Lindstrom. It's a pretty solid film, though fairly standard in its presentation and at times predictable.

I may sound like the typical ugly American here, but I was most fascinated by the film's Danishness. First of all, I had no idea that Denmark sent troops to Afghanistan. But they do, and the film begins with Danish soldiers on patrol. One of them is killed by an IED. Their commander, played by Pilou Asbæk, starts going on patrols himself to improve morale. When they get in a fire fight, one of his men is wounded, and he has air support called in. However, he can only do that if he is sure that the area being bombed has enemy soldiers in it.

This becomes the crux of the last act of the film, when he is put on trial for killing civilians. I found this part the most interesting. First of all, it makes for good courtroom drama, as there is evidence that damns Asbæk, but is ambiguous enough to create doubt. The viewer make take a side--I know I did, and I took his side, even though it was fairly clear to me that he was guilty--because that seemed to me to be the best use of justice. I was also interested to see how Danes have trials. The judges, at least the men, don't wear robes, they look like they are dressing for casual Friday. In fact, I don't think any man in the film ever wears a necktie. No wonder Denmark is often called the happiest country on Earth.

The first part of the film shows the soldiers interacting with an Afghan family, and then cross-cutting with Asbæk's wife (Tuva Novotny) dealing with the three children at home. This may be more interesting to Danes, who do not have a long history of war films. But for me, we've seen this film many times in the U.S.

I liked A War a lot but it was not better than Son of Saul or Mustang. I judge it a little better than Theeb. I have one more to go, Embrace the Serpent, which will be released on DVD shortly.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

My Struggle, Book 1

Okay, this is almost too amazing to be true--a Norwegian writer of little acclaim, Karl Ove Knausgaard, having writer's block about a novel about his father, proceeded to write his autobiography, which takes up six volumes and 3,500 pages. He titles it My Struggle, the same title Adolph Hitler used for his autobiography. It becomes a sensation in Norway, where one out of nine people have bought it. It was translated into several languages, including English, and after hearing about it I finally got around to reading the first volume.

I will say this--Knausgaard is a terrific writer of prose. But he didn't exactly lead a life that requires six volumes. I suppose anyone's story of their life could be made interesting, if the writing is good enough, but in the long run Knausgaard's experiences are just a bit too banal. Book 1 is basically his relationship with his father, who is kind of a bastard.

The first half concerns Knausgaard as a child. He begins with a memory as a small child, seeing the image of a face in the water on TV, and tells his father about it. Later, he will spend many pages chronicling a New Year's Eve when he is a teenager, trying to get beer to a party.

The second half is about his father's funeral. He and his brother go to their grandmother's house, which his father ruined with his sloth. Knausgaard hated his father and wanted him dead, but can't help keep from crying. '

The books are called "autobiographical novels," which is key, because there is no way they could be the gospel truth. At more than one occasion Knausgaard mentions he has a bad memory, but if these were to be taken as strict autobiography the writer would have to have a photographic memory. I have forgotten complete chunks of my life, especially my teenage years, but he writes as if they happened yesterday, complete with dialogue and minute-by-minute events. But in reading about the work, it is clear that he has filled in the gaps with fiction, and changed some names and eliminated characters. But still, he overdoes it with details. Consider: "Twenty minutes later I was in my office. I hung up my coat and scarf on the hook, put my shoes on the mat, made a cup of coffee, connected my computer and sat drinking coffee and looking at the title page until the screen saver kicked in and filled the screen with a myriad of bright dots." This can get to be very exhausting.

Still, Knausgaard can take one's breath away at times. He writes about visiting a funeral home and finding a box of Kleenex: "Practical of course, but how cynical it seemed! Seeing it, you visualized all the bereaved relatives who had come here and wept in the course of the day and you realized that your grief was not unique, not even exceptional, and ultimately not particularly precious. The box of Kleenex was a sign that here weeping and death had undergone inflation."

I also easily believe some of his childhood remembrances, because I can remember having similar memories, such as: "Another fantasy I had at that time was that there were two enormous saw blades sticking out from the side of the car, chopping off everything as we drove past. Trees and streetlamps, houses and outhouses, but also people and animals. If someone was waiting for a bus they would be sliced through the middle, their to half falling like a felled tree, leaving feet and waist standing and the wound bleeding."

As stated, though, this is a book about his relationship with his father, which is certainly complex. His father was a cold man, died fairly young of alcoholism, and he and his brother spend much of the book cleaning up the disgusting mess he left. "My father was an idiot, I wanted nothing to do with him, and it cost me nothing to keep well away from him. It wasn't a question of keeping away from something, it was a question of the something not existing, nothing about him touched me. That was how it had been, but then I had sat down to write, and the tears poured forth."

I doubt I will read any of the other volumes in this story. Knausgaard's My Struggle has been compared to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and I didn't much care for that, either, and stopped at the first volume. I think if you want to write a multi-volume autobiography, it's got to be more interesting and less navel-gazing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Broad City

Television has gotten so complicated. In my day, there were only three networks and you pretty much knew every night what was on. Those days are long gone. Now there are so many networks and even TV shows that are not on TV. I hardly ever watch television anymore, as I have no fucking idea what's on or what channel it's on.

So I watch shows on DVD, and I doubt I live long enough to catch up with them. I also don't know about shows until I read about them or they get nominated for awards. I happened to read an interview with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the creators and stars of Broad City, and decided to give it a try and watched the ten episodes of the first season. It is terrific.

In a somewhat scruffier version of Girls, Glazer and Jacobson play slackers in their mid-twenties who live in New York, get high a lot, and have lots of casual sex. They are also devoted friends, which keeps the series from just being a collection of yuks. It's a very humanistic show, and the women's vulnerabilities give it just a trace of sentimentalism that is heartening.

It owes a lot to sit-comes that came before, notably Seinfeld, as each episode is basically about nothing, or rather, one thing: getting locked out of an apartment, trying to get to a wedding, riding out a hurricane, going to a fancy restaurant, losing a phone. But in those simple plots, there is much mining of modern-day culture, particularly for women of that age. Mostly it's about dating and sex. For instance, Abbi goes to the bathroom and pees out a condom. Ilana meets a great guy who gives her great sex, but she can't get over how bad a comedian he is. They joke about who is the grossest guy they would still have sex with, and Abbi wins the game by answering, "O.J."

The supporting cast is pretty skimpy in this first season, perhaps they grew a little in subsequent ones (the show has been renewed for seasons 4 and 5). Lincoln, played sweetly by Hannibal Burress, is Ilana's booty call, a dentist who wants to make the relationship more committed. Abbi's nightmare is her roomate's (she's never seen) boyfriend, Bevers, who has a habit of walking around the room naked or taking a shit in someone's shoe. His shining moment was when he was caught masturbating to Julianna Margulies and explains his jerking off technique to a mortified Abbi.

Many very funny women have had parts, including Rachel Dratch, Janeane Garafolo (as a veterinarian diagnosing Ilana's hemorrhoids), Amy Sedaris as a deranged realtor, and Amy Poehler as a chef (Poehler also directed that episode). While the two leads can be seen as very silly and immature, there is an aura about feminism to the show, as it seems like a haven for cutting edge comic women.

The show is on Comedy Central, so there is no nudity or swearing, but it is certainly not for everyone. The second episode is called "Pussy Weed," as that is the place for a woman to stash her cannabis where no one will look for it. But still, drug-sniffing dogs should be avoided.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Prince

Today would have been Prince's 58th birthday. When he died on April 21st it set off a flurry of memorials by the media and fans--it seems that everyone was a fan. He received an above the fold obituary in the staid New York Times, something rare for an entertainer. Of my Facebook friends, who range in age from their 70s to their teens, only one mentioned that he wasn't a fan, but had to tip his hat to a brilliant guitar solo on a Rock and Hall of Fame performance of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

I wasn't a fan of Prince, but he crept up on me. My taste in music, especially during the teens and twenties, favored white rock, and was leery of "exotic" sounds like funk, R&B, and soul. My brother had Prince's 1999 album, and I think I was a little off-put by the photo of him on a rug, his pants dangerously close to exposing his ass.

But with all the remembrances it occurred to me that I really did like Prince, and he had an amazing career. He was certainly a genius--he produced, arranged, and played all the instruments on many of his records. While I didn't keep up with what he did for the last 25 years or so, the stuff from his first decade and change is just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, and I've been listening to a greatest hits package for the last week or so.

What Prince did, as has been pointed out by many, is merge genres. That's usually a way for someone to blaze new trails--by taking what's already been done and reinventing it. Prince was, primarily,a guitarist, and played in the tradition of white rock. He combined that with the black sounds of funk, R&B, and soul--he was like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown in one pint-size form. Sly Stone did some of this in the '60s and '70s, but Prince blew it open.

Listening to his hits, chronologically, I really pick up with his stuff from 1999, including the title track. "1999" is a great dance song, with portents of looming disaster (it seemed to guess at the Y2K panic, even though it was the early '80s). But an even better song is the melancholy "Little Red Corvette," which imagines a woman as a car that is running too fast. There is an ache and poignance in the lyrics and in the vocals that really gets to me. Slate calls it the best song about a one-night stand ever.

Next was his magnum opus, Purple Rain, which made him a superstar, along with the accompanying movie. There were three classics from that album--"Let's Get Crazy," a dance song that contrarily begins with a preacher's sermon: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life," and then it breaks into its groove. There is also "When Doves Cry," an amazingly complex song, both lyrically and musically, that contains expert guitar playing over a drum machine. This was Prince's first number one hit. Of course, the title song remains his signature tune, a mini-epic that mixes rock with gospel and seems to reveal Prince's very soul.

Push comes to shove, my favorite Prince song may be "Raspberry Beret," which one fellow called the best pop song ever written. I may not go that far, but I can't argue with him. The song is lushly arranged, with strings, finger-cymbals, and a harmonica. It is in the psychedelic style (if you can track down the video, which is hard to do after Prince removed all of his videos from social media you can see the influences) and is a simple, almost innocent tale of a young man picking up a girl wearing the titular hat and having sex with her in a barn while it rains. It's one of those songs I could put on repeat for an hour or two.

"Sign o' the Times" was the only Prince record I ever bought, and that 45 is kind of him in microcosm. The A side was one of Prince's most political recordings, a diatribe about the state of things:

"In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name
 By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same
 At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun
 Is being in a gang called 'The Disciples'
 High on crack and totin' a machine gun."

The flip side is the deliriously joyful "U Got the Look," performed with Sheena Easton. You have to laugh when they sing, "Your face is jammin' /Your body's heck-a-slammin' /If love is good/ Let's get to rammin'."

I kind of lost track of Prince's work after that, though he still had almost thirty years of material. Of that music that is represented on his hits package, I especially like "Gett Off," which is some old-fashioned funk, highlighted by a flute of all things.

Of course, Prince wrote many songs for others, most prominently "Nothing Compares 2 U" for Sinead O'Connor, "I Feel for You," for Chaka Khan, "Manic Monday" for The Bangles, and "Stand Back" with Stevie Nicks. That last song I didn't know about it until just a few minutes ago, and that's one of my favorite Nicks songs.

When all is said and done, I think Prince will be remembered as the greatest musical artist of the latter half of the twentieth century. His songs will stand the test of time, and be covered by many artists in the future. His loss, which we now was accidental, is incredibly unfortunate and sad. At least we still have the music.

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Lobster

The Lobster takes a while to get used to, but eventually, once a viewer understands its world, it is delightful and funny, even while it is always sad. It could be interpreted in a lot of different ways--as a satire of government over-reach, or as a commentary of the dangers of conformity, but I think, ultimately, it is a statement about the nature of love. I'm not sure if it's for it or against it.

Written and directed by Yorgon Lanthimos, who made the very strange Dogtooth, The Lobster plays like 1984 re-imagined by Charlie Kaufman. It would seem that the government has outlawed single people. If you are not in a relationship, you are sent to a resort hotel. You have 45 days to make a match. If you don't, you are turned into an animal of your choice.

Colin Farrell is our protagonist. Unlike his usual persona, Farrell plays a meek man with the air of an accountant (he's actually an architect). His wife has left him, so he must go to the hotel. He brings along his brother, who is now a dog. He has chosen as his animal the lobster, because it lives a long time and he likes the sea. He is complimented on his choice.

The hotel portion of the film is very funny. The acting is all deadpan, with hardly an eyebrow or voice raised. Farrell strikes up a friendship with two men--Ben Whishaw as a man with a limp, and John C. Reilly as one with a lisp (names are rarely used). The men are so desperate they fake things to be more in common with the women. Whishaw slams his head against flat surfaces to give himself nosebleeds to make a match with, of course "Nosebleed Woman." Farrell tries to ensnare "Heartless Woman" by being mean, but she eventually tricks into him revealing his emotions.

Farrell manages to escape and the second half of the film is in the woods, where he joins the "Loners," rebels who maintain their singleness. They are hunted down by the hotel guests with tranquilizer guns. The Loners are just as resolute about their lifestyle as the couples-obsessed hotel--they allow no romantic or sexual attachments, and to remove the temptation of dancing listen to only electronic music. Masturbation is banned at the hotel (the punishment is a hand placed in a toaster) but encouraged among the Loners.

Farrell meets Rachel Weisz, and of course they will fall in love and be rebels among the rebels. This could be viewed as a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" thing or a profoundly romantic statement.

The only other Lanthimos film I've seen is Dogtooth, and there are some common tropes. For one, there is some uncomfortable scenes of animal abuse, and for another, people commit or try to commit self-mutilation (in Dogtooth is was pulling one's own teeth, I'll leave it for a surprise for The Lobster). What makes the film work, and keeps it humming, is the world that Lanthimos has created. Once we hear the rules it makes perfect sense, and it doesn't matter that we don't know the reasons behind it.

The Lobster also avoids some of the Hollywood standards--there is an epilogue that is never explained, and the ending is ambiguous (in this way it reminds me of the John Sayles film Limbo). It is also simultaneously silly and deadly serious--the stakes are real, even though we may be chuckling.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Muhammad Ali

Though certainly not a surprise, given his poor health, the death of Muhammad Ali on Friday night still comes as a jolt, perhaps like one of his jabs. He was one of the most charismatic figures in sports, a man whose story was quintessentially American, but a world figure--for a time, maybe even still, the most famous man in the world.

There have been many remembrances and encomiums written. The best I've read so far is David Remnick's in the New Yorker. I can't come up with anything like that, so I can simply relate what he meant to me. Startlingly, perhaps, I must admit that I always used to root against him.

Ali, described in the headline in the New York Times as a "titan of boxing and the twentieth century," was most identified with the 1960s. That's when he won the gold medal, won the heavyweight championship in a shock over Sonny Liston, and then won the rematch with the "phantom punch," and when he was stripped of his title for refusing to submit to the military draft. But I knew him from his second incarnation, in the 1970s. The first fight I remember paying attention to was the one in which he again shocked the world by defeating George Foreman and regaining the title. That fight was not on network television, but I remember waking up the next day and learning, improbably, that he had won the fight.

For the next four years Ali ruled the heavyweight division with an almost invincible air. He had his scares--such as the "Thrilla in Manila," the third and final fight with Joe Frazier. But mostly he fought tomato cans: Jean-Pierre Coopman, Chuck Weber, Richard Dunn, Joe Bugner, etc. Many of these fights were on television, and my brother and I watched, rooting for the underdog ,but they were no contests. I remember his fight against Coopman, a Belgian who hardly threw a punch. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story about the fight with the headline, "Ali's Road Show Rolls On." He was like a three-ring circus all in one man. We knew little of Ali's place in history, other than that he was loud and frequently interviewed by the obnoxious Howard Cosell. When Ali took was staggered by hard-hitting Earnie Shavers, my brother and I got excited. When he lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, we were exultant.

I look back on those days with some embarrassment. Ali was more than a boxer, and if I were an adult during those days I think I would have changed my tune and been a fan. What we didn't know was that Ali was an icon, a man who transcended boxing, and paid a heavy price for it. When he was champ, his swagger was off-putting, especially to old-school reporters. White America liked their black athletes quiet, like Joe Louis. They were not accustomed to a black man speaking his mind, and proclaiming himself "The greatest of all time." It's sort of like today when white sports announcers disdain black athletes for showboating.

Ali was the most significant athlete of the twentieth century, except for Jackie Robinson. He changed the way black athletes are perceived. And his refusal to be inducted into the military cost him three years of his career. His point--that he had nothing against the yellow man, and why should he fight for people who lynch, was well taken. He was a man of principle, whether it was religious or not. As George Carlin put it, he beat people up for a living, but he drew the line at killing them.

What is also fascinating about Ali is how he stayed the same, but the entire nation turned in its attitude toward him. He was polarizing as a champion, but as an ex-champion he became almost universally beloved. I do remember some minor controversy when he was chosen to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. Old timers still harbored a grudge about him not serving. Even after his death, we heard that same old refrain. A congressman named Martin Daniel embarrassed himself over it, even going so far as to calling him Cassius Clay. Imagine! Calling him Cassius Clay all these years later. When Ali changed his name, some of his opponents, such as Ernie Terrell, persisted in calling him Clay. How appropriate was it for him, while pummelling Terrell, to say, with each punch, "What's my name?"

Also, Ali's conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, so his record is clean. There is such a thing as conscientious objection, believe it or not. He was a man of peace. If only we had more like him.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Tangerine

As the nation shifts inevitably toward the rights and recognition of transgender people, it is only natural that cinema should reflect this. I, personally, do not know any transgender people (that I know of) so, as Roger Ebert spoke of movies, they are an empathy machine, that can help us understand the lives of others.

Tangerine, a sparkling comedy, is about transgender streetwalkers in Los Angeles. It is Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee (Katana Kiki Rodriguez) is just out of prison. But her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets slip that her boyfriend and pimp (James Ransone) has been cheating on with her with a "fish," that is, a woman with an actual vagina. Sin-Dee goes on an expedition to find her.

Meanwhile, an Armenian cab driver with a predilection for transgender hookers gets in a little too deep, involving his very disapproving mother-in-law, and it all ends in a donut shop.

On its surface, Tangerine is a terrific comedy, as the two leads, Rodriguez and Taylor, who are first-timers and formerly streetwalkers, engage in banter that is brilliant and sassy. "It's a cruel world," Taylor tells Rodriguez. "Yeah, god gave me a penis, it's a cruel world," Rodriguez retorts.

The film, directed by Sean Baker, was inspired by the demimonde of prostitutes and pimps that circulate on a particular corner in West Hollywood. As such, it almost has a documentary feel to it (it was also shot on an iPhone, to no great detriment of image, which means that we can expect more and more microbudget films to enjoy) and also a humanistic respect. There are no judgments here, just an appreciation for people doing their best to get by. I loved when Sin-Dee goes up to one of those hourly-rate motels that has a prominent sign banning prostitutes but the clerk points her to the room where are all the prostitutes are.

The climax, where all the characters are in the donut shop while the counter woman threatens to call the police, is a masterpiece of farce. Then, in the denouement, we understand that this movie is about friendship and forgiveness, as Taylor and Rodriguez, sans wigs, hold hands in an all-night laundromat.

Tangerine is a wonderful film. Along with Starlet, which I reviewed last month, I've learned that Baker is a name to look out for.